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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

West Side Violence Interrupters Working To Bring Hope, Purpose To Young Residents — Before They Pick Up A Gun

Three years ago, the city dedicated less than $1 million to violence prevention. But this year, $36 million is going to violence prevention and related programs, on top of at least $38 million from private organizations.

READI is the Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, a radical new experiment from Heartland Alliance that could change how Chicago communities treat violence.
Heartland Alliance
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WEST SIDE — After more than 100 people were shot in Chicago during the holiday weekend, West Side groups said public safety must be rooted in relationships and community-building to prevent violence.

And neighborhoods where resources are abundant and neighbors are plugged in to a sense of community are in the best position to address the conditions that allow violence to happen, advocates said.

Safety issues can stem from a lack of jobs, education and opportunities, said Charles Decuire, an outreach supervisor in Austin with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. The West Side has been depleted of social services and supportive resources for decades, which has culminated in a feeling of hopelessness among many youth that puts them at risk for getting involved in violent situations, Decuire said.

“The things that had this community and city thriving are now gone,” he said. “These kids have so much stuff going on that people just really aren’t aware of if you’re not doing this type of work.”

The nonviolence organization’s outreach workers foster long-term relationships with young people who are at risk of violence to lead them toward a better path, Decuire said. They provide things like groceries and rental assistance to help fill in the resource gaps many families struggle with and organize pop-up events in hot spots to give youth peaceful activities to do.

“A lot of us were once part of the problem. People who were in these situations — who better to address these guys than some of the guys that they used to look up to in the past?” he said. “It gives a sense that you don’t have to go this way. You can also change your life.”

Violence prevention strategies also focus on building relationships with community members so people can rely on one another for support and intervene in a bad situation before it spirals out of control, Decuire said.

“It’s also the community members, whether it’s people of faith, the aunts, the fathers, brothers and sisters of some of these guys that’s out in these streets. If we can build relationships with the community, it also strengthens our relationship with them,” he said.

RELATED: Community-Based Violence Solutions Work — But They Need To Be Properly Funded, South Side Groups Say After Violent Weekend

There were zero incidents of gang violence over the long weekend in all 12 of the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago’s target hot spots in Austin, Decuire said. Group conflicts in Back of the Yards target areas were also “non-existent,” he said.

In the organization’s target areas in West Garfield Park, the few incidents of violence that did happen were mostly domestic, signaling community-driven safety strategies could have a significant impact on preventing gang violence, Decuire said.

Heartland Alliance’s READI program has reported a similar impact with participants in its relationship-driven anti-violence and job readiness services. The group’s members incorporate cognitive behavioral therapy into their outreach work to help struggling young people change their mindsets and break out of the cycle of violence, said Shelley Williams, a safety coordinator for READI.

“The end product is a civically engaged individual at the end of our programming,” Williams said.

Much of the violence on the streets is a culmination of generations of disinvestment, despair and hopelessness that has resulted in a lack of value for human life and a mental disconnect from the consequences of violent crime, Williams said.

“Oftentimes, the people who are perpetrators of gun violence in our communities, they haven’t had family support, you know, let alone anybody going over just the endgame of shooting into a crowded place,” Williams said. “You just see the despair and the lack of family values.”

Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps “teach these individuals to learn how to cope, to learn how to respond, to learn how to manage their frustration,” said Michelle Colyer, a READI program manager.

“Going home to a home where you’re facing so many disparities and poverty … some of them, they’re in a position where they don’t value life. They don’t value themselves. So it causes them to not have concern for action that they may be considering,” she said.

READI also offers vulnerable young people transitional job training and wraparound family support services to address violence in a holistic way, she said.

Street outreach strategies have picked up steam in recent years as a viable and effective way to reduce crime, advocates said. Three years ago, the city dedicated less than $1 million to violence prevention. But this year, $36 million is going to violence prevention and related programs, on top of at least $38 million from private organizations.

In North Lawndale, the wheels are already turning on projects that can build up the community and address some of the roots of the problem, said Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th). A community-led initiative to build 1,000 affordable homes for working-class families is on the way, which will build generational wealth, boost businesses and help solve the lack of quality housing in the area, Scott said.

“It’s all cyclical. Firstly, you have to have investment in quality, affordable housing in a community that is underserved and under-resourced,” Scott said. “Without more residents, businesses … if they don’t see enough rooftops, they will not invest in the community. Without their investment, there are no jobs.”

Scott is also hoping to strengthen connections between community members and bolster cohesion among residents by reviving the long legacy of block clubs on the West Side.

“To create a better model of public safety, we have to have communities and blocks engaged,” Scott said.

Scott’s office is coordinating resources to reignite block clubs that have gone defunct in recent years and help residents form new block clubs.

The 1800 Ridgeway Avenue block club members help keep the streets safe, and they also make sure the garbage gets collected, the snow gets shoveled and the area stays clear of litter, said club President Carl Johnson. Communities that are civically engaged experience less crime since neighbors can work collectively to keep an eye out for each other, he said.

“It’s like a little neighborhood watch. We try to be close with each other,” Johnson said. “We don’t have no drug selling on our blocks. We’re not afraid to come out because if you’re sitting out on your front porch, they’re not going to set up anything.”

Stronger relationships between neighbors helps residents create a feeling of safety in numbers, Johnson said. With enough engaged residents joining together to reclaim their blocks, they can amplify other anti-violence work and improvements on the West Side, he said.

“If everybody had a block club, the community would be better. Everybody keeps an eye out, and everybody’s got something to give. It takes a village to raise a child,” Johnson said.

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